United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania
GINA F. SIMCOX, Plaintiff,
NANCY A. BERRYHILL, Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Defendant.
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
KAROLINE MEHALCHICK UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
an action brought under Section 205(g) of the Social Security
Act, 42 U.S.C. § 405(g), seeking judicial review of the
final decision of the Commissioner of Social Security
(“Commissioner”) denying Plaintiff Gina F.
Simcox's claim for a period of disability and disability
insurance benefits (“DIB”) under Title II of the
Social Security Act. The matter has been referred to the
undersigned United States Magistrate Judge to prepare a
report and recommendation pursuant to the provisions of 28
U.S.C. § 636(b) and Rule 72(b) of the Federal Rules of
Civil Procedure. For the reasons expressed herein, and upon
detailed consideration of the arguments raised by the parties
in their respective briefs, it is respectfully recommended
that the Commissioner's decision be vacated and that the
case be remanded to the Commissioner to conduct a new
administrative hearing pursuant to sentence four of 42 U.S.C.
Background & Procedural History
September 11, 2012, Ms. Simcox protectively filed an
application for benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act asserting an onset date of August 31, 2012, at
which time she was 42 years old. (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 5, 14;
Doc. 10-3, at 12). Ms. Simcox alleges that she became
disabled due to tremors and bipolar disorder. (Doc. 10-2, at
November 28, 2012, Ms. Simcox's claims were denied at the
initial level of administrative review. (Doc. 10-3, at 11;
Doc. 10-4, at 2-6). During the initial evaluation of Ms.
Simcox's claims, it was determined that the available
evidence established the existence of the following medically
determinable severe impairments: affective disorders and
other disorders of the nervous system. (Doc. 10-3, at 5). Her
claim was denied after an adjudicator determined that Ms.
Simcox was capable of adjusting to other work at a light
exertional level. (Doc. 10-3, at 10-11; Doc. 10-4, at 2-3).
Ms. Simcox filed a timely request for a hearing before an
administrative law judge (“ALJ”) on January 15,
2013. (Doc. 10-4, at 11-12).
16, 2014, Ms. Simcox appeared and testified during an
administrative hearing before ALJ Patrick S. Cutter. (Doc.
10-2, at 26, 44-73). Impartial vocational expert Andrew
Caporale (“VE Caporale”) also appeared and
testified at the hearing. (Doc. 10-2, at 26). Ms. Simcox was
represented by counsel during this proceeding. (Doc. 10-2, at
26). The ALJ denied Ms. Simcox's claims in a written
decision dated July 31, 2014, in which the ALJ concluded that
Ms. Simcox was capable of adjusting to a limited range of
light work for which there exists a significant number of
jobs in the national economy. (Doc. 10-2, at 26-38);
see20 C.F.R. § 404.1567(b) (defining
“light work” in regard to Title II claims). On
September 3, 2014, Ms. Simcox requested review of the
ALJ's decision by the Appeals Council of the Office of
Disability Adjudication and Review. (Doc. 10-2, at 19-20).
The Appeals Council denied her request for review on January
20, 2016, thus affirming the ALJ's July of 2014 decision
as the final decision of the Commissioner subject to judicial
review by this Court. (Doc. 10-2, at 2-6).
Simcox initiated this action by filing a complaint, through
counsel, on March 24, 2016. (Doc. 1). In her complaint, Ms.
Simcox alleged that the ALJ's decision is
“erroneous and contrary to settled law.” (Doc. 1,
¶ 16). As relief she requests that this Court reverse
the ALJ's decision and award benefits, or in the
alternative, remand this case for a new administrative
hearing. (Doc. 1, at 3). After service of the complaint, the
Commissioner filed an answer together with a certified
transcript of the entire record of the administrative
proceedings on June 9, 2016. (Doc. 9; Doc. 10). In her
answer, the Commissioner asserts that the ALJ's findings
of fact are supported by substantial evidence and that the
decision was made in accordance with the law and regulations.
(Doc. 9, ¶12). This matter has been fully briefed by the
parties and is now ripe for decision. (Doc. 15; Doc. 18; Doc.
Standard of Review
order to receive benefits under Title II of the Social
Security Act, a claimant must demonstrate an “inability
to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of
any medically determinable physical or mental impairment
which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted
or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not
less than 12 months.” 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(1)(A). To
satisfy this requirement, a claimant must have a severe
physical or mental impairment that makes it impossible to do
his or her previous work or any other substantial gainful
activity that exists in significant numbers in the
national economy. 42 U.S.C. § 423(d)(2)(A).
Additionally, to be eligible to receive benefits under Title
II of the Social Security Act, a claimant must be insured for
disability insurance benefits. 42 U.S.C. § 423(a); 20
C.F.R. § 404.131.
evaluating whether a claimant is disabled as defined in the
Social Security Act, the Commissioner follows a five-step
sequential evaluation process. 20 C.F.R. § 404.1520(a).
Under this process, the Commissioner must determine, in
sequence: (1) whether the claimant is engaged in substantial
gainful activity; (2) whether the claimant has a severe
impairment; (3) whether the claimant's impairment meets
or equals a listed impairment;(4) whether the claimant is able
to do past relevant work, considering his or her residual
functional capacity (“RFC”); and (5) whether
the claimant is able to do any other work that exists in
significant numbers in the national economy, considering his
or her RFC, age, education, and work experience. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1520(a). The claimant bears the initial burden of
demonstrating a medically determinable impairment that
prevents him or her from doing past relevant work. 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.1512(a) (effective June 12, 2014, through Apr. 19,
2015). Once the claimant has established at step
four that he or she cannot do past relevant work, the burden
then shifts to the Commissioner at step five to show that
jobs exist in significant numbers in the national economy
that the claimant could perform that are consistent with his
or her RFC, age, education, and past work experience. 20
C.F.R. § 404.1512(f) (effective June 12, 2014, through
Apr. 19, 2015).
reviewing the Commissioner's final decision denying a
claimant's application for benefits, the Court's
review is limited to determining whether the findings of the
final decision-maker are supported by substantial evidence in
the record. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); Johnson
v. Comm'r of Soc. Sec., 529 F.3d 198, 200 (3d Cir.
2008); Ficca v. Astrue, 901 F.Supp.2d 533, 536 (M.D.
Pa. 2012). Substantial evidence “does not mean a large
or considerable amount of evidence, but rather such relevant
evidence as a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to
support a conclusion.” Pierce v. Underwood,
487 U.S. 552, 565 (1988) (internal quotations omitted).
Substantial evidence is less than a preponderance of the
evidence but more than a mere scintilla. Richardson v.
Perales, 402 U.S. 389, 401 (1971). A single piece of
evidence is not substantial evidence if the ALJ ignores
countervailing evidence or fails to resolve a conflict
created by the evidence. Mason v. Shalala, 994 F.2d
1058, 1064 (3d Cir. 1993). In an adequately developed factual
record, however, substantial evidence may be “something
less than the weight of the evidence, and the possibility of
drawing two inconsistent conclusions from the evidence does
not prevent [the ALJ's decision] from being supported by
substantial evidence.” Consolo v. Fed. Maritime
Comm'n, 383 U.S. 607, 620 (1966). “In
determining if the Commissioner's decision is supported
by substantial evidence the court must scrutinize the record
as a whole.” Leslie v. Barnhart, 304 F.Supp.2d
623, 627 (M.D. Pa. 2003). The question before the Court,
therefore, is not whether Ms. Simcox is disabled, but whether
the Commissioner's finding that she is not disabled is
supported by substantial evidence and was reached based upon
a correct application of the relevant law. See
Arnold v. Colvin, No. 3:12-CV-02417, 2014 WL 940205,
at *1 (M.D. Pa. Mar. 11, 2014) (“[I]t has been held
that an ALJ's errors of law denote a lack of substantial
evidence.”); Burton v. Schweiker, 512 F.Supp.
913, 914 (W.D. Pa. 1981) (“The [Commissioner]'s
determination as to the status of a claim requires the
correct application of the law to the facts.”); see
also Wright v. Sullivan, 900 F.2d 675, 678 (3d
Cir. 1990) (noting that the scope of review on legal matters
is plenary); Ficca, 901 F.Supp.2d at 536
(“[T]he court has plenary review of all legal issues
decided by the Commissioner.”).
The ALJ's decision
July 2014 decision denying Ms. Simcox's applications for
benefits, the ALJ assessed Ms. Simcox's case at each step
of the five-step sequential evaluation process before
concluding that Ms. Simcox was “not disabled”
because she could adjust to other work that exists in the
national economy. (Doc. 10-2, at 26-38). As a preliminary
matter, the ALJ found that Simcox met the insured status
requirement of Title II of the Social Security Act through
December 31, 2016. (Doc. 10-2, at 26, 28). Thus, in order to
prevail on her Title II claim, Ms. Simcox needed to show that
she became disabled on or before that date. (Doc. 10-2, at
to step one of the sequential evaluation process, the ALJ
found that Ms. Simcox had not engaged in substantial gainful
activity since the August 31, 2012 onset date. (Doc. 10-2, at
two, the ALJ found that the medical evidence of record
established the presence of the following medically
determinable severe impairments during the relevant period:
bipolar disorder (mixed presentation), substance use in
remission, and essential tremors (benign). (Doc. 10-2, at
three, the ALJ found that, during the relevant period, Ms.
Simcox did not have an impairment or combination of
impairments that met or medically equaled the severity of an
impairment listed in the version of 20 C.F.R. Part 404,
Subpart P, Appendix 1 that was in effect on the date the ALJ
issued his decision. (Doc. 10-2, at 29-30). Specifically, the
ALJ determined that Simcox's tremors did not meet the
listings in Section 11.00, Neurological Disorders. (Doc.
10-2, at 29). The ALJ then concluded that the severity of
Simcox's mental impairments, considered in combination,
did not meet listings 12.04 or 12.06. (Doc. 10-2, at 29-30).
steps three and four, the ALJ assessed Ms. Simcox's RFC.
(Doc. 10-2, at 30-36). Ms. Simcox alleged that her
impairments of bipolar disorder and tremors caused symptoms
of crying, difficulty sleeping, poor stress tolerance,
shakiness and palpitations, and also impacted her ability to
remember, concentrate, understand, and use her hands. (Doc.
10-2, at 31). After examining her statements and the medical
evidence, the ALJ found that Ms. Simcox's impairments
could reasonably be expected to cause the alleged symptoms,
but that the Ms. Simcox's statements about the intensity,
persistence, and limiting effects of the symptoms were not
entirely credible. (Doc. 10-2, at 32). The ALJ then went on
to detail Ms. Simcox's medical history, including her
past hospitalizations and mental health therapy. (Doc. 10-2,
at 32-36). In doing so, the ALJ considered and weighed
medical opinions by the following sources: treating
psychologist Rebekah Feeser (“Dr. Feeser”),
treating certified registered nurse practitioner Renee Orris
(“CRNP Orris”), nonexamining state agency medical
consultant Jerry Brenner (“Dr. Brenner”),
nonexamining state agency psychologist Edward Jonas
(“Dr. Jonas”), and disability benefits analyst
Debrena Grenia. (Doc. 10-2, at 35; Doc. 10-3; Doc. 10-5, at
22-23; Doc. 10-11, at 16-23; Doc. 10-12, at 51-52; Doc.
10-13, at 2-3). Finally, the ALJ also considered Ms.
Simcox's global assessment of functioning
(“GAF”) scores and a pair of third-party reports
from friend Tricia Cressler and former coworker/supervisor
Tiffany Mahan. (Doc. 10-2, at 35-36; Doc. 10-6, at 63-64;
Doc. 10-8, at 105; Doc. 10-9, at 39; Doc. 10-10, at 4, 21).
Feeser examined Ms. Simcox on a weekly basis beginning in May
of 2011. (Doc. 10-7, at 116; Doc. 10-8, at 45; Doc. 10-12, at
106). The ALJ noted that Dr. Feeser's progress notes
indicated “essentially . . . normal findings on mental
status examination and that the claimant was doing
well.” (Doc. 10-2, at 35). Nonetheless, Dr. Feeser
completed a check-the-box questionnaire entitled
“medical statement regarding the nature and severity of
mental impairment(s)” on July 14, 2014, in which she
opined that Ms. Simcox had extreme limitations in the
following areas of functioning: tolerating work
stress/pressure; maintaining attention/concentration during
an 8-hour day; completing a normal workday or workweek;
responding appropriately to changes in the work setting; and
fulfilling quotas or production requirements. (Doc. 10-2, at
35; Doc. 10-13, at ...